Cowboy Brings Mexico a New Leadership Style ; Vicente Fox Will Be Sworn in Today as the First Non-PRI President in 71 Years

Article excerpt

Today, Mexico City street kid Manuel Santos will have breakfast with his president.

Before Vicente Fox dons the presidential sash and becomes Mexico's first president in 71 years not from the PRI, he'll stop by this slum in the capital. Here, he'll break tamales and sip atole (a hot sweet-milk and corn-starch drink) with street children and locals. (See related story, page 2.)

There's a public relations element to this breakfast, of course. But along with Fox's other moves, it shows how the cowboy president is already changing the traditionally imperial Mexican presidency, in ways big and small.

"I don't think Senor Fox is doing this just for his image, because most people see us as animals, so how could it help him to be seen with us?" Manuel reasons. "I think he's telling us that, for him, we count."

Fox takes office today on a wave of demand for change. His focus will be a revival of the impoverished Mexican middle class and a great leap in the number of Mexicans who, like Manuel, feel they "count" and have a stake in their country.

After a series of popular fiestas around the country this weekend to celebrate the new Mexico that emerged from July's landmark elections, Fox will permanently throw open to the public the president's gated official residence, Los Pinos.

He is also scuttling what he considers outdated taboos. He'll host an inaugural dinner tonight at Chapultepec Castle, long a pejorative symbol of the Mexican "royal president." He's already been publicly practicing his Roman Catholic faith, despite a tradition dating to the Mexican Revolution that presidents be distanced from the powerful church.

"It was our bad custom in Mexico that presidents were grand, distant men who didn't live normal lives among the people and didn't have to stoop to the level of the lowest among us, like street children," says Lucia Ruano, who runs Liberty House, where Fox will breakfast. "The changes are as much for us as for Vicente Fox, because now we will have to see ourselves differently, even as we see our leaders differently."

Fox plans no drifting from the global-trade, free-market economy constructed by his two predecessors. But this former Coca-Cola executive will mix his pragmatic business side and an obsession with tackling poverty, immediately focusing on up-by-the-bootstraps initiatives.

As he did as governor of Guanajuato state, he'll set up a program of microcredits for marginalized Mexicans with ideas for generating wealth. And he'll budget millions of dollars for scholarships and credits for schooling through college level, with the idea that no Mexican child should leave school for economic reasons. And as he sets out to accomplish that, the new president will be sending an important message to the rest of the hemisphere: that change can be accomplished with respect for the rule of law and without resorting to strongman, "caudillo" presidencies.

"Fox has committed to a limited presidency, and that's healthy," says Delal Baer, a Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Part of that is Fox's dominant pragmatism. He knows he's taking office with a Congress that has no clear majority and where the three principal parties (including his own center-right National Action Party) are on the couch analyzing identity crises. …